On Saturday afternoon at the MCG, round six of the AFL season presents us with something quintessentially “Carlton.” Playing at home, against winless interstate opponents who are currently rooted to the bottom of the league ladder, the Blues have nevertheless been installed by the bookies as $6.25 underdogs. Only Carlton.
Their opponents, once-mighty Sydney, are struggling badly but you’d still fancy them to win. Yet the only real certainty of the encounter is this: Blues half-back flanker Kade Simpson will gather somewhere between 20 and 35 possessions, and he will hit the target with most of them. He’ll also reel in between seven and 10 marks; for at least one of those Simpson will sprint recklessly into oncoming traffic, and for another he’ll probably climb onto the back of an opponent or thrillingly intercept an errant forward entry.
During an era in which the modified expectation of a lower-tier finals spot has been the best Carlton fans could hope for, times in which its cast of players has often resembled a lazy Susan full of stale leftovers and undercooked fusion dishes, Kade Simpson has been the club’s most dependable and enduring performer – the acme of consistency in good times and bad. Amid 15 years of upheaval and occasional chaos, so often he has been a key factor separating pride and despair.
It wasn’t always like this for the AFL’s unassuming champion. At the start of his 269-game league career the featherweight recruit looked like a sparrow in football boots. The mere sight of him at the boundary made former Blues coach Denis Pagan wince with trepidation and paternal concern. In Simpson’s first three games he didn’t get a single kick. At that point, Pagan was basically too scared to send the stovepipe-limbed teenager onto the ground at all. When he did, he also sent out a message: “For crying out loud, let him take the kick-ins … Just get him a kick!”
In fact, Simpson only managed seven kicks across his first seven league games, which were spread over three seasons. Six of those kicks came in a single game. That is a lot of time to bide – so many testing and fretful hours running around on training tracks and expansive, unforgiving playing fields, wondering whether you’ll cut it, trying to prove yourself under the intense gaze of hopeful coaches, pundits and fans.
At that point, it was also a long wait for despairing and impatient Carlton supporters. When he was taken with the appropriately nondescript pick No45 in the 2002 draft, Simpson was the club’s first recruit in the era following crippling sanctions for salary cap rorting. Simpson’s arrival represented a demarcation point between an era of swaggering, scandal-plagued success, and the sobering realities of unprecedented and dispiriting toil for the fallen club.
With hindsight, Carlton supporters would note the three years it took for Simpson to show his wares provided one of the sharpest ironies amid the club’s new-found struggle: perhaps the most exquisite passer of the ball in that battling Pagan-era side was the plucky little urchin who couldn’t actually get the thing onto his boot. Yet Carlton knew exactly what they had. After just 21 games, the shy rookie was appointment to the club’s leadership group.
His former team-mate Brad Fisher once said he knew Simpson would play league football when he saw the left-footer glided across half-forward in an Under-18s game, evade a couple of opponents and calmly stroke through a long, running goal. It would become a Simpson trademark. The other thing that summed Simpson up, Fisher would come to learn, was that not a blade of grass was out of place on his meticulously-groomed front lawn. Everything was just so.
The statistical case to elevate Simpson above his modest stature in the game has always been strong. Last year, as age might have started catching up on him, he gathered 597 impeccable disposals – a career-best tally. For a decade now Simpson has accumulated more than 20 per game and rarely wastes them. In the modern parlance his play-directing role has seen him compared to an American football quarterback, but that term also makes you think of brawny, square-jawed all-American jocks in letterman jackets. Simpson looks more like the vice-president of the AV club.
Appearances, of course, are often deceiving. There is surely no more calming sight for Blues coach Brendon Bolton than Simpson strolling out of defence with the ball in his hands, ready to caress an inch-perfect pass onto a team-mate’s chest. When he does that fans exhale. Relief.
In all senses bar the era in which he arrived at Carlton, the other Kade Simpson trademark has been timing, and not just on those neatly-composed passes and the effortless carry of his running goals. Barely any player so physically unimposing can have leapt so often, at just the right moment, onto the backs of as many forwards, nor taken so many spectacular intercept marks. Of the subtle art of putting distance on an opponent and arriving in the perfect position to receive a releasing handball he is a master. His chase-down tackles are textbook perfection and his team-lifting smothers are timed flawlessly.
Given his kick-free beginnings as an AFL footballer, perhaps it’s fitting that the definitive Simpson play (the one that halted his 158-game streak of consecutive AFL games in 2012) was another in which he didn’t lay boot on ball, and ended up with a broken jaw. Carlton fans will never forget it: their unsung hero backed courageously into a contest, eyes on the ball, no fear, and was mercilessly obliterated by an oncoming opponent. He is courage first, then grace.
One day, once he’s finally retired and left a small but unfillable hole in Carlton’s line-up, Kade Simpson will probably be remembered most fondly in some kind of composite image in the mind’s eye: he’s striding out of defence with the wind in his sails, socks down, knobbly knees pumping, about to unfurl a bullseye pass to warm the hearts of even hardened cynics.